Obituary: Ruby Cohn (1922-2011)
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Obituary:
Ruby Cohn (1922-2011)

Renowned theater scholar and Beckett specialist Ruby Cohn died in Oakland, California, on 18 October 2011 after a prolonged struggle with Parkinson's disease. She was age 89. Cohn was professor of comparative drama at the University of California, Davis, where for thirty years she was a member of or affiliated with the Comparative Literature, Dramatic Art, English, and French departments and taught courses on modern and experimental drama, Shakespeare's legacies in modern drama, dramatic genres, and Samuel Beckett and his contemporaries. In earlier years, from 1961 to 1968, Cohn was a professor of language arts at San Francisco State University, where she launched a comparative literature program. In later years, she joined a student strike to bring ethnic studies to the curriculum. Refusing to teach her courses on campus, Cohn resigned in protest in 1968. In 1969, she joined the faculty of the theatre school of the California Institute of the Arts before moving to UC Davis in 1972. A recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, Cohn was named by her colleagues a "Faculty Research Lecturer"—the highest honor accorded at the university. She retired from UC Davis in 1992 yet continued to teach and write. At her death, Cohn was the author or editor of over twenty monographs and anthologies, among which were many influential books on Beckett and on modern and contemporary US, British, and continental drama.

Born Ruby Burman on 13 August 1922, in Columbus, Ohio, she later moved with her family to New York City, and while in high school saw the Federal Theatre Project in action, including Orson Welles's Voodoo Macbeth. A graduate of Hunter College, she joined the WAVES during World War II, learned to install radar on battleships, and became an accomplished markswoman. She soon returned to Europe and took her first doctoral degree at the University of Paris, reveling in Paris's genial postwar ferment. One cold January night in 1953 she attended the first public performance of an obscure play called En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), a work that would establish the reputation of "absurdist" theatre in Paris with its heady mixture of Sartrean alienation, linguistic experimentation, music-hall antics, and emphatic refusal to pander to conventional theatre audiences. Back in the United States, Cohn took a second doctorate at Washington University, St. Louis, where her husband, the microbiologist Melvin Cohn, taught (they were amicably divorced in 1962). This time she wrote her dissertation on Beckett, which she developed into her first book, Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (1962).

In the Irish-born, French-speaking Beckett, Cohn found a poet, novelist, and dramatist of stabbing wit and formal daring, one whose field of philosophical and literary reference encompassed the entire Western tradition. Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut was not only the first full-length study of Beckett, but it also set a high intellectual bar for the vast industry of Beckett criticism that followed. With epigraphs in French (Descartes) and English (Shakespeare), the book's thirteen chapters interweave careful analysis with biographical, translation, and publishing information, illuminating and frankly explaining Beckett's paradoxes and arcana. Throughout, Cohn homes in on Beckett's words and the peculiar [End Page 677] forms they take, sometimes matching his punning wit with her own. In the chapter "Watt Knott," she notes Beckett's comic couplings of, and puns on, names—"Cream and Berry, the hardy laurel, Rose and Cerise, Art and Con"—and wryly adds in a footnote: "Con [is] a French obscenity (as I learned through its homonym Cohn)." Beckett's credo of failure—"to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail"—was, for Cohn, testimony of his commitment to explore, through the discipline of art, the ludicrous ironies of human striving, the sham of sexual love, and, as Beckett himself famously put it, "the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express . . . no desire to express, together with the obligation to express."

That obligation betokened, Cohn felt, Beckett's deep humanity. The critic's job was not to import structures of value or theories of meaning to his texts, but to read and interpret...


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